Tuesday, April 10, 2018

And are you happy to see me? In Search of Love in Schools.

I have had the blessing to have many opportunities to visit classrooms on a regular basis in Southern California. I say blessing because of the opportunity this affords me to connect with children and youth and their incredible ability to still be present. They are not yet convinced of the need to wear the straight-jacket the world has tried to place on them. They are still laughing joyously - they still wonder openly - they still touch each other freely with hugs, fist bumps, shoulders crashing into each other reeling from jokes shared - and then, the bell rings and they summarily quiet into a stupor as they sit in rows and wait to be taught. 

Chalkboard with equations
The United States, like most countries in the world, are trying to find the most innovative, rigorous, critically demanding and relevant curriculum and strategies to teach this wonderful, upcoming generation. And in many ways, we've found it. Again and again, I see wonderfully planned, executed and assessed lesson plans. Learning objectives are clear, important information is delivered, students are required to ask relevant questions tied explicitly to the information presented, there is an exit ticket that ties back to the learning objective and still there is a tightness in the air that seems to stifle all the learning that would be had.

This taut stillness seems to suck life out of the air as the period ends and students file out only to come alive again in the hallways where they connect with each other once again.

Why is this?

Teachers, administrators, schools, researchers are all well-intentioned in their efforts to provide a rigorous learning experience in schools, but what of love. Where does love show up in our learning cultures?

In observing classrooms again and again, teachers are directing, instructing; principles are administering and managing; cafeteria and recess aides are ordering and serving - but who is loving? How can we hope to uplift the whole human being if we do not see the whole human being? Because a big part of the whole human being is the love that animates them.

Recently, I have been deeply drawn to learning more about the experience of students in schools that were legally segregated before 1954 in the United States. Many of the elders in my life who were in those schools tell me of a time when teachers loved them. When teachers knew their parents intimately: they were their friends, neighbors, church members and they knew their students were the best of them. They knew their students education was a community effort and when students would rise, the whole community rises. In Vanessa Walker's book, Their Highest Potential, she highlights the belief system that pervaded the school: These kids success is all of our business. And with this belief in front of them, teacher's would stay overtime for professional development, parents would sacrifice financially to ensure the school had all it needs, home visits were part of the home-to-school connection, the entire movement of the community and school were centered around the upliftment of the student. This was not a program or strategy the school was implementing, it was a belief system they centered around. When you believe something, you don't have to think about it, it is evident in all of your actions; it governs your choices; it shapes your language; it infuses all of the spaces you inhabit - including your classroom.

I am not suggesting we return to legally segregated schools, though there is evidence we are more segregated now than before when it was legal. The time of seeing each other as separate tribes and people is rapidly coming to an end. We are one people, one race and the recognition of this truth is quickly unfolding in its stead. The scientific evidence of the oneness of humanity has been unequivocally proven. It is not a matter of hard science or strategies we are after, it is a matter of the human heart and this is more delicate work. Because the oneness of humanity has to become a belief system. When you believe something you are invested - remember it is infused in everything you do. And so if I believe in the oneness of humanity, than it is all learning animated by love. For I want to know about you, learn with you, from you...because I know, you bring something of great value to the table, as do I.

How can we learn from these communities that have not only survived, but flourished despite the odds against them? The peoples of African descent have been under the yoke of oppression the world over due to colonialism and the instrument of whiteness it used to measure the worth and value of human beings, allowing it to perpetuate enslavement securing free labor. The indigenous peoples of the Americas who's land was given freely to European males, while they were displaced and their profound knowledge of natural sciences destroyed, continue to be pushed to the fringes of society always their name - Indio - said with a bitter taste in the mouth. And the people of Asian descent, who try to balance the dangerous walk of assimilation and preservation - assimilating to a country's dominant culture to survive, while staying connected to their ancestral heritage. And what of those of European descent, who refuse to forget the injustices that were done to others in their name? Who strive to find their roots and honor their ancestors resistance to oppression, by calling out the beast out loud, who expects them to also be loyal to whiteness.
Image of women seeing reflections of herself

En Lak Ech, they all say! Tu eres mi otro yo - you are the other me. And when we believe this and it infuses how we show up to the world - then if I disagree with something you have done or said - my response is, let me learn more. Tell me more about your experience. There is something I do not know or understand that has led you to say what you are saying and I want to understand. Or at minimum, be present and listen to the other me.

When I walked out of those classrooms I couldn't help but wonder what I would be thinking if I was one these students walking into the class. After all the learning objectives and strategies and think-pair-shares...I would want to know - and are you happy to see me?

Because after all, I think we all want to be bearers of joy and my job as the adult in your life, is to see you. En Lak Ech!

For a podcast of this blog post click here: The Human Experience

Thursday, March 15, 2018

In a World that Demands Innovation, How do We Transform?

Dream. Create. Inspire.

                                     It’s Your World. Take Control 

 Dreams Made Real            Ideas for Life

In a world that sloganizes all of our creative forces into minimal shapes of controllable language and ideas, it is hard to think of how we can move into the power of who we are - even that sounds like a slogan! And yet, this work of transformation is real, profound and not only needed, but necessary for living. This is not a new concept, but in the 21st Century everything has been magnified into a global and surging reality that potentially touches the lives of millions in seconds. So the demand for people showing up to who they truly are is heightened in all of our interactions. How to do this?

Recently, I offered a workshop on Awakening Intuition: Identifying the Noble Voice Within in
Workshop info on awakening intuition
which we explored living a path that empowers our truth and honors our purpose.  I have found when I live by my authentic voice, I am transformed, at every moment I am potentially new again with life and ideas pushing out at an exponential rate. I am not interested in whether these ideas become slogans to live by, rather I am convinced they are forces that move through me and impact others in how I speak, in what I do and how I love. Every movement is motivated by these forces and others feel this depth of truth in each exchange. These forces do not make me special, nor do they belong to me - they are forces of creativity and innovation that belong to everyone!

So how do we awaken these forces of transformation within us? Here are a few nuggets of truth I have learned from deep reflection, consistent action and a faith driven walk that believed the best of me was manifesting herself:

Find Your Mirrors

We are all connected and some of us manifest qualities that touch the lives of others, because they too carry those qualities. Find those mirrors. For me this mirror was Prince. He manifested the qualities that spoke to my soul: 
  • Courage
  • Light
  • Love
  • Faith
  • Divergence

For a young girl of two very complex and tradition bound heritages born - Quechua Indian from Bolivia and Irish-British pilgrims - I felt deeply connected to my roots and at the same time driven to change. From an early age I felt the complexity of who I was and the competing forces within my family being of two very different worlds.
Prince on guitar
Prince showed me how to rise above all of this. He refused false dichotomies, he embraced all of his gifts and pushed them out with a force that rejected any of the limitations, society in its immaturity, tried to impose on him. 

Another mirror belonged to my grandmothers, woman I never met here in the physical realm, but who were very alive to me in the spirit world. Mama Cruzesa, Nana Millet, Nana Mitchell all spoke to me my entire life - again, through the way they chose to live their life. They embraced all of their dualities and struggled through the imposed limitations of being spirits bound by traditions of womanhood or being indigenous or both! Each in their own way they defied these limitations by standing up for indigenous woman's rights or by quietly investing part of their kitchen budget into the stock market, eventually making millions.

So find your mirror. They are out there. And not to mimic, but to inspire. 

We are all mirrors. 

Listen to the Voice Within

This can be a tricky one and in Western society we are taught any voices other than the one spoken through our vocal chords are not to be trusted. In my experience, not so. And yet, a word of caution - find the voice of your true self that seeks your highest good. This can be a challenge. A few things I've done to do this include:

Listen to your body 

Our body is our greatest storyteller, it has been with us since our inception and knows all of our most intimate secrets and experiences. Learning to listen to the body is a beautiful act of love. It says: I love you. I trust you. I know you want to take care of me. That is the purpose of the body, to take care of us. It's sole creation is to make sure we are in the best possible position to live fully. I have learned to listen to my body by doing a couple of things: 
  • I listen to when it is in discomfort and I ask myself, Is there something about this part of my body that needs attention? For example, if I have an earache, could I be listening too much? Or not listening enough to someone? Do I need to be more gentle with this part of my body. And then of course, I take care of it physically as well - if it needs medicine or even just rest. All of this is an act of love. As I do this more, my body will tell me more. It is a relationship and needs nurturing. Overtime, it may tell me of past pains or traumas that need healing; false belief systems I may be carrying. It is a gentle process and one grounded in a deep feeling of respect and love.
  • Learning of other ancient traditions of healing, like the sacred Sanskrit text, that tells us we are energy beings and must learn to use this energy to not only heal, but find and direct our purpose has also been transformative. In the West we have learned of this tradition primarily through what is commonly referred to as the 7 chakra system. This article was highly enlightening for me as I deepened my understanding of our body as energy systems that we could access and learn from. I used meditation to connect to these chakras. Knowing I am an energy being, I would use my understanding of chakras to find my seat of truth and listen from this place that I carry at the center of my body's core. 
  • Finally, breathe. I almost wanted to pull this out and make it's own tool and in some ways it is. Breath is such a powerful gift of life and even though it is what keeps our physical engine going, it is also an incredible tool to move back into our body when we are thinking too much. I find that if I am ruminating over a problem, all I have to do is breathe. Breathing brings me back into my body, back into the chakra that I found at the core of my body and where I know my truth calls me to listen. Breathing also tells the brain that everything is okay and this allows me to pause. Ready to listen. 

Manage Your Emotions

Our emotions, powerful sources of energy and stimulation for movement, love and creativity. Also, inhibitors of movement, projectors of false beliefs and overwhelming oceans of energy that can weigh us down. Our emotions are just energy, but when they go unchecked, they can become like hurricanes and demolish all in their path. So, again what to do? It is helpful to remember, emotions are energy that reflect the state of the heart. In this realm humans are of two distinct selves, our lower nature which is attached to the material realm and our higher self, the self of the spirit which is attached to the world of the divine. These two selves are in constant tension for usurping power over the other. Our emotions are great indicators of where we stand and the direction our heart is mirroring - our spirit self or our lower nature. How do we identify emotions? In our dominant western culture we don’t understand emotions very well and see them as something that needs to be suppressed. A tool I use to help me develop a better understanding of emotions is the Diamond of Emotions:

Under this diagram, there are 3 primary emotions: Joy, Fear and Pain and one secondary emotion: Anger. In general we are uncomfortable with emotions, period. In particular with fear and pain. We do not like to feel fear or pain and try to avoid them in ourselves and in others. We also don’t want people to be too happy either. We question why they are so happy and show discomfort with their happiness. In our society we are taught to avoid emotions such as fear and pain and are questioned when we feel them: Why are you crying? There’s no reason to cry. What are you afraid of? There’s nothing to be afraid of. We want others to not feel these feelings so we too don’t have to feel them. Because we’re energy beings we pick up on each other’s feelings; the stronger the emotions, the more uncomfortable we become if we are not aware of our own reactions to people’s emotions. There is so much more to say on this topic, which is why I am writing a book that includes an entire section on this. For now, it is enough to begin to recognize when we have these emotions and to treat them like water. If we consider a river, all a river wants to do is allow water to move. If water becomes stagnant it begins to rot and becomes a source of damage. So our job, just let emotions run their course and when we are done come back to truth and love. The message we close with: We are loved. We are okay. This cycle allows you to come back to a calm and clear mind and project from love once again.

These are a few tools that I have learned to help me come back to my truth and in turn, they allow me to transform my inner reality. Slogans attempt to capture the power of innovation, but in the end, behave more like smoke distracting us from the real work and goal that innovation demands: Transformation.

When we transform our inner reality from doubt and fear, to truth and courage, we can stand in faith and walk with spirit feet deeply rooted to the truth of who we are - noble human beings.

Friday, January 5, 2018

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged SonWhite Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent book! A must read for anyone interested in social justice and trying to understand their role in resisting oppression. In narrating his story, Tim not only tells his story, he also highlights how privilege has served him as a white man. He also addresses the cost of this privilege for white people, something not often addressed. What exactly does whiteness demand of white people? What do they sacrifice in order to obtain the privilege whiteness affords them? These are powerful questions we all need to reflect on - because whiteness impacts all communities - in Latino communities where you gain privilege if you are born blanquita or as grandmother's often exude in delight, "es bien guerita". These are all acts of oppression which pits lighter skin against darker skin, even within one's own family. And all of it an illusion...because race is an illusion. Tim's book is priceless in the fight against oppression, especially in the cancer of racism.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"Essential Lists to Create Change"...In an age of instant and profound transformation.

Lists like this abound. Although well-intentioned, vague lists like this can be more dangerous than they are helpful. As an indigenous-Latina with strong European ancestry I know about straddling two cultures. My father's culture, Quechua Indian with Bolivian heritage is a communal culture where the strength is prized in the group. In my mother's European heritage, with the dominating spirit of the early pilgrims and subsequent puritans the strength of this culture is independence and individualistic efforts. So how the world is viewed and interacted with is very different to each. 

When you translate this into reforming school policy in an attempt to make schools more equitable, we have to be careful that we recognize the power of culture, the hidden belief systems held within each culture and how to honor these differences. 

For example, asking schools to make as a non-negotiable the importance of creating a warm and welcoming environment in and of itself is not bad. However, when it comes to implementing this, you have a very different picture. 

When I worked coordinating parent involvement at a school district, of course we visited this important list of non-negotiables, and more. According to research, the number one reason that influences parent involvement is creating a welcoming environment . So how to do this? I would sit with the school leadership team and we would pore over the research and these lists of non-negotiables, and school staff would say, "We do have a welcoming environment!" Here's what they do:
  • We send out flyers to invite them to meetings
  • We tell them about our events
  • We have pictures of staff on our walls
  • We have positive messages and decorations
  • We have back-to-school night
And on and on. And yes, these are wonderful efforts to invite families to your campus, if they are from your cultural script. In the dominant culture of our country - white, middle class values and beliefs - this is a great list. To each of these you could subscribe a belief system from this cultural group, in particular individualism. The flyer is to the point and it's up to you as an individual to make it happen. If you want to speak up at the meetings as an individual, you do. Staff pictures tell you about those in charge. Again, each of these subscribe to a belief system from this cultural group. But what if you serve people who are not from that cultural group? What if you serve people whose cultural group has very different norms of behavior and belief systems? Then these messages don't say the same thing. 

When I was a teacher, like all teachers, I was constantly moving from the moment I arrived on campus until late into the afternoon. I also knew the importance of developing relationships with the families of those I was serving. One day, as I ran from the staff lounge to my classroom, I heard someone call out to me.

Buenos Dias Ms. Marañón! I turned around and saw parents waving at me through the gates. 

A common response would be to wave back, "Hello, sorry I have to get ready for the day!"

I knew better.

I ran over to them to shake their hand and respond, "Buenos Dias! Disculpe que tengo que preparar la clase." 
"No se preocupe, anda, no mas queríamos saludarla!"

And with that brief interaction I gained countless hours. I knew from my home training that taking those few moments to shake their hand, say good morning and than politely excuse myself to set up my morning class spoke volumes about how important they were to me. 

When you come from a communal culture, relationships are everything. 

If I want you to join me in a meeting, I invite you personally and I greet you at the door with a warm handshake to welcome you. Food is waiting for you so that you have a nice drink and light snack while we meet and discuss ideas. Food is not there because I know that's why you'll come, but because I understand that food always helps create a warm and welcoming environment. Who we serve matters, not who's serving. Pictures of students and families and all the myriad activities that they're engaged in with our staff would abound. There is not just one night to engage with families on our year's learning, there are multiple moments and times to meet and connect around student learning. 

So when we say, Create a warm and welcoming environment, Develop students as good people and learners...we have to be very careful not to treat these as blithe statements, when in reality they are profound and require deep digging. How you interpret a warm and welcoming environment is different for each culture. What does it mean to develop a student into a good person and learner? Somebody who follows the rules? Someone who sits quietly and takes good notes and responds well on tests? Because these are not the people we venerate in history. These are not the people who created change in history. 

Non-negotiables in schools are a willingness to question, develop meaningful relationships with those we serve, learn to re-create and co-create our learning culture again and again as times change, people change and how we show up to our core values may also change. Our core values may not change, but how you approach them may. And probably most important of all, know that if we truly desire a learning culture, it means learning: make mistakes, listen with empathy, change course when needed.  

At the core of all of these statements is the true belief in equality. If I value you as equal to me, than learning your cultural language, your cultural norms, inviting you to help me co-create our shared learning culture that impacts someone we both love the most - your student - is not too much, nor too much trouble.   

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Disruption in Our Learning Cultures Develops Families as Learning Partners

Google glassesToday, technology is a bullet train and rapidly transforming every sector in society. Disruption is evident in companies like Airbnb and Lyft that have completely rearranged how we vacation and commute. This disruption not only shifts what we do, but impacts our mindset, as well. We think differently about lodging when we vacation now. Our boundaries and expectations change when we order a ride. So, when we think of the disruption technology has caused in education, we must ask ourselves: What is the mindshift that accompanies this change?

What often makes this feel uncertain is how new these learning spaces are to us - we have never had such a strong disruption in our learning culture before in formal education. This disruption asks us to rethink the role of the teacher, students, administrators, the tools that we use, the space we learn in, the time when we learn -- everything has been upended and is being reevaluated to best serve the needs of the 21st century. What makes this shift  unique is that the impact is not just on the school environment, but it impacts the home learning culture as well. How do we engage parents in a learning shift that we are still unsure of how to navigate ourselves?

Author presenting at a workshop for parents on educational technology
Workshop on ed tech for families
Every major learning shift requiring professional development for teachers also, necessitates training for parents. It does not have to be the same kind of training, but should be relevant to the person receiving it - from teachers to parents to bus drivers. This is not something district personnel need to figure out for everyone. We just need to create an opportunity for these different groups to come together to reflect on these new learning opportunities. Research shows that asking open-ended questions foments curiosity, and curiosity leads to new ideas. So, we should ask parents where there are opportunities to support the type of learning this research encourages in their homes, their learning spaces. The same is true for every person that comes into contact with students - bus drivers, office staff, etc. When I bring this up, I often hear, “That’s not their role, we are asking them to do something that belongs to teachers.” This is a false dichotomy based on assumptions that learning happens in silos, and that the community supporting the child is unable to nurture the academic learning that happens in the classroom. Including all members of the learning community in professional development, creates meaning that serves students in a very direct and profound way! We have to give all participants in the life of a child an opportunity to understand the shifts in learning that impact the child.

Here’s why this is important work and why it is imperative we include families in our learning spaces at schools: Kids go home somewhere! And wherever that home is, there is a learning space there. If it doesn’t mirror the learning space students experience in school, then they don’t know whom to listen to - their parents or their teachers?

This conundrum has practical implications. As educators, we know that students need to think critically, and, in order to do this, they need to learn to question and, to dig deep into a problem or idea and try to uncover the why. It is an incredible skill to develop and will help the world uncover truths that are sorely needed.

So, where do families come in? Developing What we have learned about any new skill requires two components in order to develop strong brain patterns and synapses: repetition and emotional connection. Time spent learning a new skill in school is not enough - students need to keep practicing in diverse learning spaces, including home. However, traditional methods of parenting often do not support this style of learning:

I want to go to my friend’s house tonight. You can’t go. Why not? Because I said so.

Whoa, why are your grades so bad?! I don’t know. That’s just an excuse. You need to try harder.

When we don’t include families in the conversation of learning that we are having, they will not know the powerful impact these type of answers can have on their child’s brain and thinking patterns. If we shared with families the learning we are having around the power of questions and the importance of repetition and emotion in developing strong brain patterns and synapses, their conversations could be more meaningful:

I want to go to my friend’s house tonight.
Tell me more about your plan. Why is tonight important?

Whoa, why are your grades so bad?!
I don’t know.
Let’s look at each one and tell me more about the class and what is making it a challenge.

Parent looking through google glasses
Parent workshop on technology
These are not new ideas, yet framing them in the context of learning, gives them added urgency and a deeper layer of understanding. It also gives parents one of the most powerful roles in parent involvement, according to Johns Hopkins researcher Joyce Epstein “There are Six Types of Parent Involvement “. According to Dr. Epstein’s research, learning at Home is the type of parent involvement that most strongly correlates with student achievement. No wonder! This is where parents get to engage on a profound and meaningful level with their kids in their learning. This doesn’t require them to have formal education, it just requires them to participate more effectively in their child’s learning environment - including the one they create at home.

When you integrate technology into the learning culture, it is imperative to involve families in this conversation. They, too, wonder how these new tools support learning and often believe that technology is just for playing. So, when kids come home with school-assigned devices and are watching videos for homework, parents don’t understand that this is part of the flipped classroom. Or, when kids come home with their school devices and are chatting in online classrooms, parents don’t understand that this is a powerful way to develop academic discourse. Including families in relevant trainings about the disruptions happening in our learning cultures empowers them to be active participants in this learning shift.

Author with district parent leaders
Author with district parent leaders
Now, we can begin to truly talk about equity. When we include families as equal learning partners in our schools’ learning cultures we will ultimately, begin to explore this question: How do learning cultures in our students’ homes impact our schools, and what can we learn from their families? This is another powerful path that further supports the dramatic shifts in learning.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Creating Magic in the Learning Culture

I am often invited to visit schools that have received awards because of high ratings in their use of educational technology and as innovative learning centers. This always excites me, a place where creative learning takes place for kids? Yes, sign me up! And from an initial glance they are definitely different learning environments. New flexible furniture, colorful walls and decor, excited adults - awesome!  It is apparent, that there is an effort to change the learning environment; whether or not it’s actually happening at the core level of values and belief systems remains to be seen. What eventually unfolds is something we are accustomed to: some children are eager to share their projects with you, while the majority sit back and quietly share when prompted. What is most striking, is the projects are all vastly similar, if not starkly the same. Where then is the innovation and more importantly, what was the professional development like?  

Student with imagination bubbleInnovation is a big buzzword right now in education. We need our kids to innovate - we want them to be creative thinkers - they need to think outside the box. The question then becomes, how do we do this?

In an effort to be innovative, schools often latch on to big ideas, like “maker spaces” (classrooms with Legos and art materials whose intention is to allow students to be creative and innovative in their thinking). Many schools are looking towards creating robotics or Lego clubs. All of these intentions are laudable. Unfortunately, these efforts alone do not impact learning for everyone. To do this, we must consider our learning environment.

Bringing in new furniture or programs without shifting the learning culture results in reverting to familiar classroom arrangements and teaching new programs with traditional, teacher driven pedagogy.

When exploring questions around access in education, we have to consider the learning culture of the classroom and school. Although many of the aforementioned efforts may intend to impact the learning culture, they often generate excitement among a small minority of teachers and students. How then, do we impact all students to truly think in creative and innovative ways?

Our starting point most likely is misplaced. Rather than look at students, we need to start with adults. Students are born ready for change and innovation, innately curious about the world around them. By middle school, this inherent drive to learn is minimized so drastically, it is troubling. That this happens in adolescence, when students’ brains once again have become as active as when they were toddlers undergoing an incredible transformative process, tells us that the learning culture surrounding them, rather than any innate characteristics, is what impedes innovative learning. We adults need to be willing to reflect on whether our learning culture truly allows all students to learn.

The good news is that there are adults who are very willing to take these risks and try something new, fail miserably, reflect, and try again! Every campus has at least one of these teachers who is, ready to create change and try new things. It is these teachers who create magic in our classrooms and from whom we can learn to do the same. How can we scale what they have mastered? First, start with the willing and then have them coach peer to peer. These risk-taking teachers are often more than willing to share. They have not just latched onto the tools but also the learning culture that is required to go with the  new tools and programs.

Being willing to reimagine our learning culture requires us to examine the skills we hope our students achieve, and to assess, whether the characteristics and qualities of the environments support these skills. If we desire to cultivate the skill of curiosity in our students, then we need to ask ourselves what corresponding change in the learning culture is required. A quality that complements curiosity is risk-taking. However, many react to the prospect of risk-taking with fear: What if our students fail? What if our school doesn’t do well in state testing? These fears often stifle the risk-taking that enables innovation.

My son a freshman in college, recently described to me the frustration he sees from his college teachers, who want their students to speak up and take risks in the classroom through problem-solving. He said none of his peers ever volunteered or spoke up, even though his teacher encouraged them to try, even if it results in mistakes. “Why?”, I asked. His response: “Because they’re afraid to fail.”

“Where does this come from?” I asked.

“It starts in middle school and solidifies in high school. If we make mistakes it affects our grades, and if our grades aren’t good, we know it’ll affect our college prospects or even passing a class. So we don’t like making mistakes, because it means we aren’t doing well and the consequences are too severe.”

Image of a standardized test
In one swift response to the question, “Why don’t students take risks?”
my son summarized our educational system’s culture that ties student performance to their grades, which are tied to school ratings, college entrance, prestige, etc.

I realize this asks us to reexamine our entire system, including our grading practices. Many schools are doing just this. Hampshire College in Massachusetts has dropped standardized testing as a requirement for admission. According to the school’s president Jonathan Nash, in an article published by The Independent
"Our applicants collectively were more motivated, mature, disciplined and consistent in their high school years than past applicants."

Although many of us cannot make sweeping decisions like this, we can begin by examining the very area where students will spend a good part of their day - our classrooms.

How will students feel when they walk in? Will they, for that brief period, feel encouraged to stretch their limits and take risks? Will they know this is a space where they can tackle tough questions? Learning asks all of us to be present - not just our intellect, but our full selves, which includes our emotions and spirit. What will drive students through problem-solving, if not the inner spirit to know, the gnashing of emotions to pull through the unknowns of questioning?

So when it comes to teacher buy-in and scaling up, start small. Good learning practices can catch like wildfire.

Professional development should not just consist of learning new programs and using new tools and furniture. It should also be a space where educators have an opportunity for deep reflection on their own learning practices. Asking big questions. Educators need time to wrestle with these questions, and then the freedom to begin cultivating a new culture in their classrooms. To do this once is not enough. Professional development is more effective if it models coaching. Ultimately, good professional development should open up more questions and offer an opportunity to continue honing in on these questions throughout the year.

In the end, we have to ask ourselves, what drives us, what keeps us moving through? And then, with an honest lens, open up to the risks that enable innovation - creating magic in the classroom.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Equity and Access: How to Bring All Voices to the Table

Recently, I was asked to assess the climate of a local school in preparation for the leadership team’s implementation of professional development that would have profound impact on the pedagogical and technological environment of learning. I walked the campus, spent time with the teachers, observed lessons and students and most importantly, I listened to the language being used. What was the word choice of the adults, what beliefs did it carry about learning and more importantly the students they were serving?

There was love present to be sure, in the humorous jostling of students who were late, the ones who were sleepy and wanted to take a nap and in general between the students and teachers there was little hostility. Until the lesson on social media came up and then the tone shifted. Teachers and teacher-aides were condescending of student use of social media. The adults chided the students for not knowing how to communicate anymore, for being attached to their devices, more importantly, conversation stopped and communication became one-way as teachers became the dominant voice in the classroom and students silently sat taking in the obviously biased view of them as incompetent in communication.

Communication is key to strong human relationships. And with the rise of social media and technology communication has shifted drastically for everyone.

Technology is the perfect amplifier that has uncovered many voices, even those we hope to keep quiet and in the dark. The voices of our deepest fears and our most guarded secrets have now been exposed to the light. We’ve seen this in particular with social media. In 2013 when the first Hunger Games movie came out and one of the most beloved characters, Rue, was cast as a young black girl, social media went wild. Tweets flooded the internet decrying, “why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie” and “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad” and on and on.

These sentiments have always existed, just underground and unexposed. To say social media or
Quote: Technology Amplifies Underlying Human Forces - Toyama
technology is why this is happening is to defer the attention from the real, hard issues we are facing in society, in this case racism. These are issues that have never been dealt with well and with meaningful dialogue in public spaces. Technology is changing this and bringing up opportunities for difficult conversations. Stepping up to this opportunity will create profound shifts in our society; doing this globally is a challenge.

Education is no exception to this shift in culture. Schools are shapers of culture and in an ever advancing civilization, this shift is both profound and deeply challenging. Schools not only react to the cultural shifts happening around them, they actively drive the culture forward.

In an attempt to embrace the profound shifts happening in society, education is making technology one of its central players in learning. This also inadvertently brings in all the issues society is trying to grapple, by amplifying these voices in the classroom. This, in turn, brings up the issue of access and voice - who gets technology and whose voices are heard? The discussion on access is broad and long with many players and entry points. In this article, my focus will be on providing access through a lens of equity. How do we address access with equity in mind?

Addressing access requires a two-pronged approach focused on technical and cultural change. Both of these require a new mindset where we question our preconceived notions, adapt our perceptions, and reexamine our biases.

Questions we need to ask are: When we work with students who are low income, do we see their lack of resources as  a deficit and their families unable to provide for them? When we work with students of color, how do sub-conscious biases show up in our expectation of student learning and behavior?
Infographic depicting black students disciplined more harshly than whites for same offense
For example, with Asian students, is there an assumption they’ll be good at math? Black students disruptive? Native American students environmentally conscious? How do our perceptions of different student groups get in the way of serving our students equitably? Are our assumptions of their use of devices congruent with our biases?

Do we draw unfair conclusions about students of a particular socioeconomic status or ethnicity or family structure -- and do these conclusions impede our ability to act fairly and effectively to increase access? Whereas if they were not low income, might we perceive them as school ready with greater access to resources? If they were not a student of color, might our biases about them not inhibit their educational experience (i.e. Asian students are naturally good at math and computer science, African-American students disproportionately being placed in special education, etc.)? How does any of this impact access to technology?

Biases and perceptions drive decision-making. They impact the opportunities we give our students to engage with technology, inhibiting how we prepare them with skills for the 21st century.

For those of us in education checking our perceptions is key; we hold the lives of children in our hands. Often, in working with districts, I am told that the population they serve is low-income, and therefore there is no way they can afford to buy their students devices or get high-speed internet connectivity. Again, perceptions drive behavior and decision making.

I come from a strong communal immigrant background on my father’s side of the family. I remember when one of my cousins needed something for school my aunt would call my father who would then call my uncle and so on, until all the adults had been consulted and it was agreed who would contribute what. Whatever it was that my cousin needed, it was purchased by everyone. Surely, my family was below the poverty line, but it didn’t matter. Education was a priority and when something was needed, the family (and community) would come together. While my family was perceived as unable to pay for educational materials, they found a way, because they understood the urgency and the need behind the materials that were needed for my cousin’s education. Had the school invited my family to the decision making table about materials students will need and why they will need them, they would find that low income families are more than willing to step up to the opportunity to participate and support schools in the decision making process. We continue to miss these opportunities in education because of our perceptions and biases.   

Often in education we solve problems through the dominant culture of our schools. In the United States, this is predominantly a white middle-class lens. But when applied to situations where communities solve problems differently, that lens may give a distorted picture. What looks like a below-the-poverty-line income in one family, is actually not when all family members ally forces as mine did. Every community is unique and it's important to make sure we check our perceptions at the door, and include them in the decision making process.

If families and students continue to be perceived through our biases, they may not be given the opportunity to use technology and thus participate effectively in these conversations, and we need everyone at the table to grapple with these most profound and painful elements of our society. We
Quote We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. Carl Jung
cannot afford to continue shaming students in their use of technology and social media, derailing their education with punitive measures that only drive the behavior underground - lives are at stake. We need to shift our belief system and truly follow our motto: every student matters.  

We cannot afford to miss these opportunities for empowering student voices and their families in schools. We must learn to have brave conversations about race, gender, income disparities and the false perceptions we carry about each other. Where else should we have these conversations but in our schools where learning is core to its existence?

Creating equity in access isn’t monetary; at its core, it’s a belief.